Hello people. I come here in an effort to spread awareness of the "WebTV for Dreamcast" software in hopes that at least people will realize that efforts have been made recently to document it along with its service and other WebTV-related topics, as it actually has quite a bit to it in terms of how it functions. Not sure if it counts as an online "game," but this is the Online section so I feel it's appropriate to post this here. I imagine most of you are asking, "What is WebTV for Dreamcast?", and in extension, "What is a WebTV?" I'll answer that right now.
To most people's dismay (and mine too), it's not a video streaming service from the 90s. What it is however is both a series of products and a service that launched in 1996 in the U.S., and about 1-2 years later in Japan, that aimed to bring the Internet to the average Joe, originally by designing set-top boxes that would be manufactured by licensed WebTV partners that'd only require a telephone line and a monthly subscription to a specialized WebTV service to connect to the Internet. Not only would it let the average person connect to the general Internet, but it also had its own proprietary version of the Internet users could explore, offering its own services such as discussion groups, e-mail, news, search, and chatrooms, not much different from classic AOL on desktop computers. This service also even utilized its own set of HTML tags for its own pages to make use of WebTV-specific rendering and features. While it didn't really make much of an impact especially considering that computers were starting to get cheaper, and WebTV had its own issues of compatibility with the general Internet, it eventually just remained a mainstay with senior citizens at least in the U.S. until September 2013 of all things (which by that point it was already renamed to MSN TV). It's time in Japan was much shorter, however, having its service end in March of 2002. While it was active in Japan, though, it got a release on the Dreamcast in 1999 with the official name "Microsoft WebTV Connection Kit", which was essentially the WebTV software pressed onto a GD-ROM. It was mainly available through mail order (both snail and e-mail), and while it possibly didn't offer anything too different from what the dedicated WebTV hardware had, it's still an interesting piece of software seeing as like the dedicated hardware, it utilized its own fully fledged protocols to deliver proprietary service content and Internet content to end users, and it was ahead of its time, making it something worth learning about technically.
Problem with that, though, not much information about the service or even the product's technology has survived or came out at all. This is especially an issue with snapshots of the proprietary service pages and the protocols used to power WebTV. Before 2019, no such attempts were made to coherently document it, and while WebTV's own hacking scene was actually hard at work to make sense of the service and its protocols and learned quite a bit about it, doing some digging reveals they were not the kind to consider publicly documenting stuff like that and had a thing for keeping it under the public eye, whether it be for selfish reasons or fear of legal action/misuse of exploits, not to mention most "hackers" didn't even dig deep into learning about the service on a technical level, making it that much harder to rely on them for information. Whatever the case may be, even after the service had long been shut down, they don't seem to be keen on documenting what they've learned over the years themselves and either keep it stashed, or send over tiny bits and pieces of information to their friends to publish with the expectation people will eat it up. One example that comes to mind for me is a "server emulator" released three years ago by notorious WebTV "hacker" MattMan69, which is essentially a small Perl server someone else wrote that barely supports WebTV for Dreamcast and only has a mock home page and web browsing services set up, the latter only being powered by an external server said hacker operates, expecting people to build their own entire WebTV service with it when A, the codebase is rusty and almost two decades old by now, B, no other information on the protocol the server supports (WTVP) is available for reference, and C, that'd take an extremely long time especially if emulating the old service infrastructure isn't an option. Proper preservation of any WebTV content hasn't been their forte either, with the official (yes, official) WebTV Plus version of the PC game Doom being "preserved" in a custom firmware build MattMan69 maintains and on his own fully fledged WebTV server he currently keeps private, with the game being hacked to plaster in his "HackTV" branding all over the splash screens. There's also a customized image of the WebTV for Dreamcast software he offers that essentially... adds a custom home page and small hacks to connect to the aforementioned unpolished "server emulator". Point is, these people, while very few are willing to contribute more crucial information and content now on a small level, are still very hesitant with publicizing their WebTV knowledge, even if it isn't necessarily a giant legal issue, and remain in their closeted hacking scene mindset where they only trust their scene friends with the crux of the WebTV information. This is a shame, especially since there is talk that there is a person from the scene that knows the service in and out, choosing to stay hidden under the shadows and not contribute what they've learned publicly.
Good news is, there have been attempts to fill in the gaps in terms of WebTV information that would otherwise be lost. First off, a dedicated WebTV wiki
launched a few months ago doing its best to properly preserve WebTV content and document previously obscure information about the WebTV service and its protocols, with it actively seeking for those who might have critical information that's otherwise undocumented. Second, new information has been uncovered about the Dreamcast version of WebTV
in particular recently (which I updated with information originally only on my wiki, BTW) , including a previously unknown comic
(manga?) included with the registration postcards used to request the discs. While most new information uncovered isn't specific to the one in Japan, these are all a good start to getting a better understanding of WebTV in general and eventually, the Japan/Dreamcast side of things. Who knows, someone might be able to make a proper server for WebTV some day, even if it'd be useless with the modern internet.
In the meantime, spread the word to people you think might be interested in this effort. If you're up to reverse engineering the Dreamcast WebTV disc, go all in with that. If you know someone who might know a thing or two about the WebTV software or service, Dreamcast or otherwise, reach out to them! Hell, manual scans of the Dreamcast version or any other materials pertaining to Dreamcast WebTV would be valuable, doesn't matter to me (should've clarified this earlier lol). WebTV in the end is a niche product that only satisfied a niche audience with some information on it that's not 100% verified floating on the internet, and while I might've not been part of that original audience or someone who thinks WebTV was flawless, I do think it's worth uncovering as much as we can learn about it, both on the East and West coast side of things, for this otherwise endangered technology.